Our Amazing & Creative Alumni: Valerie Day '77

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Jazz singer

By Nadine Fiedler

From the Summer 2011 Caller

Underneath the recent rap song “Buzzin” by Mann and 50 Cent are a catchy bass line and vocals that you will never get out of your head. Although the music is new to some young folks, that sample of timeless dance-pop was lifted from a 1986 megahit, “I Can’t Wait,” which has taken on a life of its own. In 2009, according to Billboard, the song played somewhere on earth every 11 minutes. The group that recorded it was Nu Shooz, and the singer was Valerie Day ’77.
Valerie and her husband, John Smith, won quick fame and were thrust into its attendant whirl after “I Can’t Wait” exploded onto the European and American charts. They earned a Grammy nomination for best new artist in 1987. But fame doesn’t last, and it’s not pretty. “We worked really hard to get where we were, and fame turned out very different from what we had expected,” says Valerie. “It’s taken me a long time to sort it all out.”
What she figured out is that an artist has to evolve—and she’s never stopped refining her art and her skills. Valerie has evolved into a compelling and breathtaking singer and performer who has played solo, with bands, as a session musician, and with her latest project with John, the Nu Shooz Orchestra.
Along her path, Valerie has become a wise observer of her own and other people’s creative processes, a philosopher as well as a practitioner of the arts. “I’m a perfectionist by nature, so I’ve learned that you have to enjoy yourself and delight yourself. Being able to be flexible and be in the moment is important, even if you know it’s going to go away,” she says.
One of Valerie’s recent projects was “Brain Chemistry for Lovers,” a product of her curiosity and ability to connect disparate ideas and disciplines. She studied the neuroscience of different phases of love and presented it in a performance, interwoven with songs exemplifying the emotion of those phases, from steamy torch songs to melancholy breakup songs. “People think that creativity means the arts, but this project made me realize that scientists are just as creative as musicians. They have to look outside the box—or expand it completely.”
Although she’s worked in many musical genres, Valerie started out in jazz, and that’s her favorite place to be. “Jazz is satisfyingly complex,” she says. Right now she’s working with a team to create a vocal jazz degree program at Portland State University, and she’ll teach students to become contemporary vocalists.
Valerie is also a prominent activist for arts education in the schools: “There’s so much evidence about what a positive effect the arts have. I think everyone can be creative, but learning an artistic discipline in school teaches you to look at things in a different way throughout your life.”
As a longtime singing teacher, from beginning through professional, Valerie is particularly sensitive to what her instruction means to her students. “Learning to sing teaches you to be brave. Once you face your fears and do what you’re compelled to do, that leap of faith expands your world,” she says. “I teach professional singers how to value internal measurement in their lives—what they feel compelled to do, what they love, how they want to improve—not how people measure you externally. Music is not easy as a vocation, but it’s worth it.”
“Learning how to work with others successfully in music is a huge learning experience that can be applied to other vocations,” says Valerie. “Lots of doctors and scientists and business people use arts as a balance in their lives. Music and art can be a prescription, and there’s a different prescription for every person. The arts can help you find your voice and nourish you. It’s definitely medicine for the soul.”

“Catlin Gabel was a big part of my being creative. I was interested in telling a story through dance, music, and visual arts, and I got that all at Catlin Gabel. I learned how to think and ask questions and not just go along with someone else’s program. You only have one life. To make the most of it is a creative act in itself.”

Valerie Day portrait by Sherri Diteman